Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

Steve Donoghue wrote what I thought was the best tribute to Vidal; it was graceful, heartfelt, lyrical. And absolutely the most gorgeous photo of the young Vidal I've ever seen. Though I will take him to task on Gore's "abandoning his country"; Vidal always maintained US residence and lived in the US for the last decade or so. And America was a huge theme of his life and much of his work. English: Portrait of Gore Vidal by Juan F. Bastos

The NY Times had a mostly factually accurate obit but marred with lots of snarky asides and uncalled-for digs. The funniest part of the Times obit was this marvelous correction:

Correction: August 1, 2012. An earlier version misstated the term Mr. Vidal called William F. Buckley in a debate. It was crypto-Nazi, not crypto-fascist.

I am so glad we got that cleared up.

The line in Steve's tribute that resonated with me was his line that, with Vidal's passing, "The 20th Century is over." To think of a time when a man of letters could live by his pen and be a public intellectual -- it boggles my mind. Vidal, Mailer, Vonnegut are the first names that leap to mind, and they evoke a time and place that seem almost as distant and quaint as Dickens' London.

I have to agree with most of the chattering classes that Vidal's essays are what I would come back to, again and again. To read them is to have Vidal whispering in my ear -- the voice and cadence and rhythm of his prose is part of what makes them so seductive to me.

I always preferred his literary essays and reminiscences over his political essays. I respect that it was part of Vidal's personality and commitment to his country and what he felt were his responsibilities to be involved in the cut and thrust of current politics, and he had to settle for a Cassandra role rather than that of a lawmaker and politician (a role he probably would have preferred -- what a soapbox!).  But I think his political writing will age more quickly than his literary ones, and we will have to see whether his political assessments will hold up over the next 20 years. I think they won't. I think he landed several heavy punches on the influence of money and television on politics, and his skeptical and hectoring voice will be missed from the daily debate, but I have real doubts about his conspiracy theories and his isolationism.

Of the novels, I read the American Chronicles series in order and while entertaining I won't go back to them. Two Sisters is probably the novel I remember the most and the one I'm most inclined to want to keep for re-reading; an odd melange of script, fiction, and memoir, playing on themes he toyed with throughout his fiction. Julian was also very good and I have Creation waiting on the shelf. I've never been interested in the "inventions" -- Duluth, Myra Breckinridge -- but I should give them a try.

One of his observations I come back to often was his idea of what was at the center of the culture. In pre-literate times, it was poetry. Then prose and novels were at the center, and pushed poetry to the margins. Then radio and movies were at the center, pushing novels away, and poetry further away. Then television. All the while, poetry and the novel were pushed further away from what might be called the mainstream. I wonder now if there are multiple centers or if there is no center -- the center cannot hold.

Of all the forms he worked in, I would suggest that the interview offers the most visceral thrill of undiluted Vidal. Like Harlan Ellison and Stephen Fry, Vidal seemed most at home in a chair with a camera pointed at his face. Being prodded by random questions elicited that voice and those opinions that people like me love going back to again and again.

Arts and Letters Daily has a good roundup of obits and articles on Vidal. Search on Vidal's name to find the entry.

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